With a cup of coffee, a loaded Tahoe packed full of musical equipment and a cooler full of cheese curds, I left my house to pick up The Messenger. Embarking on a 2,300 mile tour to the Ozark Mountains of NW Arkansas and NE Oklahoma, we set off across the Twin Cities to catch I-35 south.
Over the past several years since losing my brother, I've continued to play a beautiful house concert series in the community of Flint Ridge in Kansas, Oklahoma, for my parents and all of their great friends in the area. It had been a couple of years since I have visited them in their beautiful paradise, and having just come from four months of touring and songwriting in Alaska, I decided now was the time. With a full music schedule in the Twin Cities, I left Grant with the responsibility of the Minnesota TWP Chapter, and I was fortunate enough to be able to have brought the Messenger along for the ride.
A mutual friend and music booker of You Rock Promotions, Mark Goodroad, connected me with Nashville’s amazing song-bird, Melody Guy, who after talking to on the phone a few times, quickly became as familiar as a sister. Accepting my invitation to come play the house concert with me, her voyage would take her westbound through Tennessee and Arkansas before arriving at my parent’s house. Before leaving Minnesota, I had contacted Joe Mack, a local Okie and musical powerhouse, and told him of my plans to come down. He invited me to play with him at The Branch restaurant in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, for a Saint Patty show. I graciously accepted and invited him to be a part of my house concert the following day. Before I knew it, I realized that I was bringing together some amazing musicians who had never played together, one of the raw essential elements of Third Wheel Project (aka TWP). The road was set and put in motion. That is when I asked the Messenger to come along with me. Having not known Mike outside of the local Stillwater, MN, music scene, I had a tugging voice and a deep-rooted feeling that we would be able to bond outside of the stage. I could not of been more correct.
I have always wanted to set up a solid corridor tour between Minnesota and the Ozarks….. Stillwater, MN to Stillwater, OK. My past tours south had been a straight 11 hour shot, bypassing everything in between. It was as if my prayers were answered when an old father-figure friend reached out to me and told me that I would be 40 miles east of where he lives if I was traveling through Missouri on I-35. I went to school with his only son, Ryan Calkins, who sadly passed away a short time ago. I was filled with happiness at the idea of seeing JR and his wife, Jean (my adopted parents), and to play for them and their friends. Music I have written over the years since my own brother's death could possibly be as healing for them as it was for me. Ryan's father lined me up with a show in his beautiful little town of Maryville, MO at a great venue called The Pub.
The dash of our Chevy Tahoe holds the very distinct view of life on the road. The wrapper of a beef jerky stick, a Bluetooth speaker, three pairs of sunglasses, two hats and a recent gas receipt blowing around because the windows are down. The Messenger snatches it out of the air before it escapes to the highway. He turns and looks at me in a gravely voice then says, "You better hang onto this son." I stash it in the pile of receipts clipped to the visor, which are already exponentially growing. The drive to Maryville was full of Jimmy John jammies, good music and a forever setting sunset. It was late when we got to our beds. I cannot give enough thanks to JR and Jean for hosting us and filling our bellies with wonderful Midwestern cooking.
On Wednesday, some call it Hump Day, we set off towards downtown to set up the stage and stopped at the local radio station to introduce ourselves and to promote our show that evening. We were welcomed with open arms and new friends. Jeff, the owner of The Pub, is an amazing individual and an incredibly hard worker. When we arrived at the venue, he was single-handedly moving couches and chairs down from the stage to put in their positions throughout the venue. One of his worker bees, Tia Calkins and an incredible artist, was rotating artwork from a previous art show throughout the venue. It instantly felt like a home venue to Mike and I because of their hospitality and kindness. The show was great that night. We had two guitars, vocals and a piano. We were well received by the locals and the students from the University, the Bearcats. After the show, we started thinking we would play here on our way back north the following week. We came back home at about 2 AM and were not quiet enough on our tiptoes. Jack, the beautiful and wonderful dog of the Caulkins’, greeted Mike and I in a barking tumble. We quickly slunk away to our rooms and found slumber.
The next morning, the Caulkins greeted us with meaningful conversation, home cooking and artisan coffee from Alaska. We hit the road south on 71 towards Kansas City and rode with our arms out the window. One of our missions, was to find strings for my new Charango I had picked up from a gentleman in Wisconsin who had acquired it in Bolivia on his last work trip. Just south of Kansas City, we happened across a billboard sign advertising a guitar shop with over 2000 guitars in a town called Butler. The music shop was awesome and they treated us with so much kindness. If you are ever in the area, stop in and tell Jack that we sent you. He told us of a music venue across the street called the Union. We walked into the Union and found the owner, Brandon, sitting in the corner working. He greeted us with a smile and we booked a show the following Thursday on our way back to the Twin Cities. At first glance, the Union Restaurant is a tall, 1860’s styled saloon with an arched brick doorway leading into another room which houses the bar. The entire venue screams “Americana”. On the bar side, Brandon and his brother, Rodger, painted a huge American flag on the interior wall. The plaster which the flag is painted on, breaks away in places leaving the original brick structure as a 3D backdrop. The menu looked amazing, and we left with big smiles on our faces, knowing that when we return northbound, our senses would be dazzled.
With four hours to go, Mike is behind the wheel, and I am sitting in the passenger seat rattling off bad jokes and old memories. Driving south, the sun is sitting at about 2 o'clock in the sky and I am singing the lyrics to my song, Kansas City, with the windows down and my hand surfing the airwaves. With 12 miles to go, Michael turned the keys over to me as I wanted to be the one to pull into the driveway. We pull up to the gated entry of Flint Ridge and I pushed the button.
Almost to Mom and Dad’s! The narrow winding road snakes its way immediately to the top of the ridgeline where the term “Gateway to the Ozark’s” begins. The setting sun flickers through the passing, tall evergreens where wildlife is abundant and turkey and deer forge on the forest floor. The beautiful sound of birdsongs fill the air with the occasional shadows of larger predatory birds soaring above the canopy. The road somewhat resembles a roller coaster with sharp turns and hills that cause my belly to lift. This roller coaster keeps getting faster and faster, as I cannot wait to see Mom and Dad.
We pull into the driveway at about 6 PM. Melody Guy is standing outside waiting for us. Mom opens the door and Dewey pops out to greet us. We jump out of the car making our introductions with big hugs and smiles. Of course, Mom has dinner almost finished and we crack a beer on the back porch. This place is hard to describe. But it is a place that will always exist in my heart. As a young kid, I read the book “Where the Red Fern Grows” in English class. I absolutely love that book. The story of a boy and his two dogs running amongst the tall sycamore trees hunting raccoons. The filming of the movie was shot on the same stretch of river that my parents live on while the book’s setting was the river valley below & southward. After a good night’s sleep, I woke up early and took my guitar outside on the back porch and wrote a song about the Red Fern and what it means to me. After coffee and breakfast, the Messenger and Melody took off towards Fayetteville, Arkansas, to run errands and to do a radio interview regarding our upcoming local shows. I took off with Mom and Dad towards Fayetteville and Springdale, Arkansas, to look for strings for my armadillo guitar. In my quest to get this awesome little instrument up and running, I found a beautiful venue and guitar shop with an incredible staged area that offers a continuing concert series. I did not find any strings, but I did make a good connection for a future venue we will play on one of our next tours south.
On our way back home, we stopped in every antique store and pawn shop we came across where I found a vintage suitcase. I've always wanted to have a stomp box when I'm playing guitar and singing and ended up picking up a drum kick pedal, as well. Dad and I spent several hours in his shop and successfully mounted it to the case. The sound is fantastic! The rest of the day was filled with music and food.
On Friday, we headed south to Tahlequah where we met Joe Mack for our Saint Patty's show at the Branch Restaurant. It was an intimate venue with great food & where we were very well received. It is truly an honor to play with such wonderful musicians!
Saturday came quickly and preparations for our house concert commenced. Mom and Dad reserved what was formerly known as the Round House before a tornado took it out in 2011. It was rebuilt into a beautiful little venue with a large covered deck overlooking the Illinois River and valley below. We had about 35 people attend and the evening was magic. By the end of the night, Melody was leading us in song, Joe was on the mandolin, Mike was on a lead guitar, I was on Cajon but jumped to the piano when my dad got up to play percussion. I never realized how good of a drummer my dad was. I think he must've been practicing quite a bit since the last time I saw him. The full band sounded like we had been playing together for years. The night was filled with children playing, laughter and heartfelt tears; truly a captive audience. We, as musicians, live for this kind of moment and fully appreciate the continued support from our Flint Ridge family. At the end of the night, the few stragglers that stayed behind kindly helped us load all of our gear and we went home and found beautiful slumber.
After waking the next day to coffee and breakfast, and headed to Rogers, Arkansas, to New Province Brewing, a beautiful little brewery in the bustling town of Rogers. We were greeted with kindness and well received by all of the Sunday fun Go'ers. After our show, Melody decided to stay one more day and we headed back to Kansas, Oklahoma, to Gatortailz, a local biker bar under new ownership. Some local musicians run a jam on Sunday nights and we joined them. It was a lot of fun to play a local bar and one we will definitely revisit our next tour south.
After reluctantly saying our goodbye’s, Melody headed back to Nashville Monday but not before she & I hopped on the four-wheelers to visit a new family in the neighborhood. This beautiful family has five wonderful kids who all love music. We gave the kids a Cajon that my dad and I had built two years ago and left them with the mission to keep playing music. It was so wonderful to see the smile and joy on their faces.
Mike and I stayed at my parents house all day enjoying rides on the four-wheelers and the smell of the smoker as my father worked his magic on a few racks of baby-back ribs. For any of you who know me and how much I love to grill and smoke meat, my father is where this passion came from. Tuesday brought more relaxation in preparation for the coming onslaught of shows. Wednesday night, we headed back off to Springdale to set up for our show at a brewery on the White River called The Saddlebock. The brewery is housed in a red barn perched outside of town on picture perfect farmland. The locals came out and we had a wonderful time playing music for them. Needless to say, we made some friends and promised to return when back in the area.
The following day, we took the four-wheelers and brought Adam’s remaining ashes to the river’s edge where my brother loved to sit and write. We emptied his ashes into the Illinois River and let him go. It was a very heartfelt moment, surprisingly filled with happiness and tears. A couple of hours later an old friend of mine in Alaska called me and told me he just had a dream about my brother. In the dream my brother told him to call me to tell me that he was happy and that he was OK. My friend in Alaska had no idea we were doing this, but the time of his dream was the exact time we were dropping his ashes into the river. It shook us both to the core. There have been several times over the years when my brother has reached out to me through various friends and acquaintances.
Early Thursday morning we loaded both vehicles, my Tahoe & Mom’s Subaru for the drive north to Butler, Missouri. We took off up Highway 10 where Mike & I listened to the song that I wrote several years ago called Kansas City. I wrote this song chasing a girl north and is one of my favorite songs to perform. "Kansas City here I come, cattle trails and two lane roads. Highway 10 you're my friend again, my queen is waiting on the other end..."
We pulled into Butler listening to the local radio station airing our interview and music that was recorded the previous day. Since we had a scheduled community service show at the Breezy Meadows Nursing Home that afternoon, we quickly dropped off some of our gear at the Union Restaurant, and rushed back to Breezy Meadows to set up our sound system. Soon the room was filled with smiles and clapping from residents and staff, bringing so much joy through music. After playing a little over an hour, Mike, went around to every person shaking their hand. It was as if he was a vessel of youth transferring his energy into those he touched.
Afterwards, we headed over to the Union and set up. If there is one bar that represents this great nation, it is the Union in Butler, Missouri. Brandon and his brother, Rodger, have done an amazing job turning this old brick corner building of the town square into an Americana-themed restaurant. We were greeted by the smell of amazing food, kindness and hospitality from everyone that works there and felt a deep-rooted sense of America's heartland. The stage was set perfectly and we had the support from the entire community. The first half of the show was to a dinner crowd. Most dinner crowds I have played, I am simply the background music. But this dinner crowd was a captivated audience and the venue turned into a listening room very quickly with dancing between tables. My father played percussion for us all night long and he absolutely killed it :-) I mostly played originals but did sprinkle some of my cover songs into the mix. We ended up playing for about six hours that night. We made some great friends and, by the end of the night, found ourselves back at Brandon's house crashed out on adjacent couches. The next morning, we woke up early and Mike was still in dreamland. I thought it would be funny to start talking gibberish to him. It took him about five minutes to realize that I was just messing with him but it gave us both a belly laugh. We went back to the Union for breakfast and to pack our gear down and say our goodbyes. I would like to give a big shout out to the Union, Brandon, Jackie and Rodger for making us feel like family. We will definitely be back soon.
Our next stop on the tour would bring us back up through Kansas City and back to Maryville. Mom and Dad decided to come follow us for one more show. We arrived back at the Calkins house at about noon. I wanted so badly for my parents to meet JR and Jean. Both having lost a son, I knew that there would be an instant bond and a lot to talk about between them. They literally seem like they were cut from the same cloth. Mike and I headed off to The Pub to set up and get ready for our final show on this tour. Jeff was cleaning and working hard when we arrived, getting ready to open the doors. We set up the stage and got set for the night. Being spring break, Jeff had expected it to be a slow night but it was quite the opposite. We ended up playing about five hours that night with most of the town coming out to listen. Tia, a local artist at the college, brought out her paints and painted the Third Wheel Project logo on the front of my new suitcase kick. Dad rocked out on the percussion again and Mike sang a little blues. The Caulkins’ family & friends joined in for the evening. It was amazing! Against our better judgment, we decided to break down the following day even though the forecast was calling for 80% chance of rain. We were greeted in the morning by biscuits and gravy and lots of hugs with promises to return soon. We loaded up our equipment in a downpour and began our 400 mile trek back to Stillwater, Minnesota.
The drive-through rule America is quite humbling. The vast expanse of farmland and amber waves of grain, reminds me how hard these farmers work to feed us all. It was good to see a persistent rainfall across Missouri and Iowa. The land south of Kansas City is rather dry right now with fires popping up everywhere. An occasional lightning strike with low hanging clouds blowing east to west made for a beautiful drive northbound. Once we made it to I-35, it was smooth sailing. Mike is a walking encyclopedia of musical knowledge. He gave me several history lessons and soon took over driving as I grew tired. As we grew closer to the Cities, the price of gas also rose. On the drive, we called music venues in towns that we were passing to book shows for our next trip south. By the time we arrived at Mike's house to drop him off, we had clocked 2,331 miles. This time, we gave each other a big hug with the promise of playing music the next day. I headed straight to a small venue on the St. Croix River in Stillwater, Minnesota, to join my friend and brother in arms, Grant Walker, as he had a show Saturday night. I set on the Cajon and sang a few songs. It's funny how music is the one thing that relaxes me as well as pumps me up. This was a wind-down for me. I was completely and utterly exhausted from the haul that we had just finished. For any musician out there, you know what I'm talking about. You’ve just played the most incredible show of your life and after the show, your body is pumped full of adrenaline and good vibes, making it very hard to sleep.
Looking back, I made a new brother and his name is Mike. I was able to spend time with Mom and Dad, releasing Adam to the river, which he loved so much and passed upon. I made a sister in Melody Guy. I can remember every time I have cried on stage while performing, and I will always remember playing percussion to Melody's songs as they drew up the tears from within like a mountain spring in the Ozarks. I will always remember the joy upon my mother’s face when she sees me after too long. I will always smile upon the memory of my father and all of his hard work throughout the years to provide and shelter us, and the connection we made when he finally joined me on stage after all this time. I will never forget the happiness it brought the folks in the nursing home in Butler, Missouri, when we sang to them, lifting the room out of their forgotten stare. I will never forget Lew's burritos. I will always remember the moment that Melody Guy called Joe Mack a foxy minx. Thank you so much for reading. We have some great things coming the next six months so I invite you to come back often to see what we are up to. From the Third Wheel Project and all of the love we bring, have a blessed day and love, love, love.